Shiva-Purana is one of the most important Hindu scriptures dedicated to Lord Shiva. It contains 24,000 shlokas (verses) with no less than one thousand names of Shiva. He is undoubtedly the most popular of the three main divinities of Hinduism, the others being Brahma and Vishnu. Shiva is the destroyer and thereby the creator of all that happens in the universe.
Uttarakhand is believed to be the cradle of Hinduism and two major pilgrimages are Char Dham - Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath and Panch Kedar - Kedarnath, Kalpeshwar, Madhmaheshwar, Tungnath and Rudranath. Panch Kedar are the five main shrines dedicated to Shiva and are approachable by treks only.
During the course of my treks and travels in the Himalaya as a lensman, I have been truly blessed to have visited some of the most popular shrines on pilgrim routes and undoubtedly, the Panch Kedars stand majestic amongst all the shrines. When the Mahabharata ended, the Pandavas went to seek the forgiveness of Lord Shiva but considering they had sinned by killing their own kith and kin, Lord Shiva was reluctant to let the heroes of the epic see him. He then sought to avoid them, donning different forms and at places not revealing his full form. The Panch Kedars are a testimony to this belief and at these five places Lord Shiva eluded them and the Pandavas could only see him in partial state of existence.
It is one of the holiest Hindu temples, which remains open only between May and October, due to extreme weather conditions. Bhima, one of the Pandavas saw a strange buffalo which was no other than the Lord Himself. He dived into the earth upon seeing the hero of Mahabharata, leaving his hind part at Kedarnath. By a darshan of this light, the Pandavas were absolved of their sins. When the temple is open, pilgrims flock to this shrine in lakhs. It can be reached by a rather difficult trek of 14 kms. To my good luck, every trip to this shrine has bestowed me with a plethora of photographic images. This particular image was taken just before the shrine had opened and it had snowed rather heavily just two days back.
At a height of 2200 m in the picturesque Urgam Valley, this is the only Panch Kedar accessible throughout the year, approached through a cave passage, believed to be the matted tresses (jata) of Lord Shiva. It is an easy 12 km trek from Helang. The Pandavas could only get a sight of Lord Shiva's matted hair at the Kalpeshwar shrine. Another legend holds that this was a favoured place of meditation by the sages though photographically, it disappointed me.
MadhmaheshwarI associate this shrine with my first trek to the Panch Kedars when it was a two-day trek from Guptkashi and then taking another two days to return. Midway, I halted at the village of Ransi for the night. The trek is through thick forests, full of wild life, now has a shorter approach which is possible due to a new road. Here the Pandavas could get a glimpse of the Lord's navel only, manifesting as his belly.
The trek commences from Kalimath at a height of 3289 m. It is closed for six months and its deity is taken to Ukhimath for worship during the winter months. Coming here was a double reward for me, providing a trek in a picturesque valley, with the added bonus of a darshan at the shrine.
The highest shrine of Shiv is located at 3680 m. Its architecture is magnificent but sadly most of the deities have been stolen. Rishi Vyas had advised the Pandavas to get rid of their guilt of fratricide by seeing Lord Shiva. Here, only his hands could be seen. Ironically enough, this shrine is the easiest to approach by a 4 km steep trek from Chopta and has commanding views of the two peaks of Kedarnath and Chaukhamba, besides other smaller ones. It receives heavy snowfall in winter months and on one of my trips I went in deep snows, taking about six hours of strenuous climb to reach. With not a soul within miles, it was one of my most memorable trips. Two km ahead of Tungnath is Chandrashila, a hill top commanding a 360 degree view of the Himalayas.
This is perhaps the toughest one to reach and again somehow not very exciting in terms of photographic compositions. Located only at 2286 m, it has a difficult approach. This is a natural rock temple situated within a dense forest of Rhododendron and Alpine pastures. Here, the face of Shiva shows up. In winters, the deity is brought down to Gopeshwar for worship. The place sees people thronging mainly to pray for ones' ancestors. It is approached by a tough 20 km trek, with most of it being upwards. The shrine commands a great view of the Panar Valley and the twin peaks of Hathi and Ghori.
Ashok is a professional photographer whose life passion has been to scale Himalayan peaks, capturing their beauty on camera. His only regret is the bug caught him late and instead of a mountaineer, he had to contend being an avid trekker.